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The Messiah in Disguise


On World Communion Sunday one of the challenges we face is to continue to become a person through whom others can experience the presence of Christ’s justice and love.

That’s a tall order!

Nevertheless, we are not called to be Jesus’ fans—we are called to be his followers.

In light of that great challenge, to embody Christ’s love in the world, I share a favorite story of mine of how that challenge was manifested in a struggling community devoted to hearing and doing the will of God.

A rabbinic story full of much wisdom for us.

Consider this:

“A once thriving monastery in Eastern Europe has fallen on hard times.

“In desperation, the monastery's abbot pays a visit to seek the advice of a wise rabbi he knows.

“The abbot tells the rabbi his story of how, at one time, his monastery had been famous throughout the western world, but now was all but desolate and falling apart.

“Visitors no longer came and only a handful of monks remained, and they were not happy.

“The abbot asks the wise rabbi: “Is it because of some sin of ours that the monastery has been reduced to this state?”

“The rabbi answered: ‘Yes, the sin of ignorance. You see, one among you is the Messiah in Disguise, and you’re ignorant of this.’

“That was all the rabbi said on the matter.

“On the trek back to the monastery, the abbot wracked his brain over who in their midst could be the Messiah.

“Brother Frank? No, gentle, but dim.

“Brother Thomas? No, too quick to anger.

“Brother Joseph? No, too easily despairing.

“On the other hand, he thought, the rabbi did say the Messiah would be in disguise, so perhaps his defects were his disguise!

“Come to think of it, everyone in the monastery had defects, and one of them had to be the Messiah!

“Back in the monastery the abbot assembled the monks and told them what he had learned from the rabbi, and they looked at one another in disbelief.

“The Messiah? Here? Hard to believe.

“But he was supposed to be there in disguise.

“Because they wanted to do right by the Messiah but did not know who he was, they decided to play it safe, so the monks took to treating everyone in the community with tremendous respect and consideration.

“They said to themselves when they dealt with one another: “You never know—maybe this guy is the one—the Messiah.

“The result of this was that over time the atmosphere in the monastery became vibrant with kindness and joy.

“In time dozens of aspirants were seeking admission to the order. People returned to bask in their loving glow—their community was reborn.

“And they say still, if you stumble across this place, where there is life and hope and kindness and graciousness, that the secret is the same:

“The Messiah is one of us.”

Friends, I share this old rabbinical tale with you this morning because it contains an important truth which the Apostle Paul also sought to communicate in his letter to the Philippians.

And that truth is this: A church or community, a workplace or a home, whose members make thoughtful choices—who choose to treat one another as they would treat the Messiah--with great love, kindness, loyalty, and respect, is a community or church which is faithful to God and will be blessed with God’s peace and experience joy.

Paul wrote to the church at Philippi pleading with them to have a faith born out of reflection and to strive to make good choices in the words they would say and the deeds they would do.

Said Paul:

“Brothers and sisters, think about the things that are good and worthy of praise. Think about the things that are true and honorable and right and pure and beautiful and respected. Do what you learned and received from me, what I told you, and what you saw me do. And the God who gives peace will be with you.”

Friends, earlier in this same letter Paul had written:

“Make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant…”

Friends, the monks in that old rabbinical tale began to make new choices when they ceased looking at each other as mere mortals but instead, as persons worthy of the love and respect which is offered to God.

Just so, Paul wants the members of the church at Philippi to remember that they are responsible for the health and well-being of their community which comes in part from disciplining their minds to think Christ-like thoughts and to express Christ-inspired actions.

Therefore, I say to all of us gathered here this morning, let us take control of the thoughts we allow into our minds.

How important is such an effort in terms of how we live our daily lives?

James Allen, theologian, and author of, “As a Man Thinketh”, a graduate of Indiana University and West Point, who has studied human biology and psychology extensively writes: “You are today where your thoughts have brought you; you will be tomorrow where your thoughts take you…The research is clear that negative thoughts…have detrimental effects on our health.

“A deliberate decision [to replace negative thoughts with more positive thoughts] for just one week--can make a difference in your attitude, your emotions, and your resulting behavior.”

Friends, it’s easy to get into a rut of negative thinking—as well as to take our family members, friends, co-workers, even strangers, for granted and treat them unkindly and not as the precious gifts to our lives, and to God, that they are. Normally, a person stuck in a rut of negative thoughts will not be able to offer much grace and forgiveness to themselves for their own problems and failings—they beat themselves up.

Such people, usually, will not have much grace and forgiveness available to offer others.

That was the rut those monks in the story were in before they had been told about the

Messiah in disguise.

That is the rut that the members of the church at Philippi had entered, and the apostle Paul was determined to help lift them out of it. The great Philosopher, Rene Descartes declared: “I think, therefore I am.” He viewed the mind as central to our identity. Unless we suffer from a serious mental illness, we each have the ability to choose to replace negative thoughts with positive ones. Indeed, we have the responsibility as Christians to do just that.

Eleanor Roosevelt once said:

“One’s philosophy is not best expressed in words. It is expressed in the choices one makes. In the long run, we shape our lives and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die. And the choices we make are ultimately our responsibility.”

Friends, even when we are presented with very challenging circumstances in our lives over which we have little or no control to prevent—we still have the power to decide how we will respond. We can go negative or try to remain positive.

Author Leo Buscaglia tells a story about his mother and their “misery dinner.”

“One night after work his father came home and said it looked as if he would have to go into bankruptcy because his partner had absconded with their firm’s funds.

“Suddenly, Leo’s mother left the home saying she had some errands to run.

“She went out and sold some of her jewelry to buy food for a sumptuous feast.

“Later, other members of the family scolded her for it. [A party? Now, amid this financial crisis? What was she thinking?]

“But she told them that “the time for joy is now, when we need it most, not next week.”

“Her bold and courageous act rallied the family.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s father, Martin Sr., often spoke about a favorite saying of his mother’s. During his childhood in Stockbridge, Georgia, she would often say: “Always thank God for what’s left.” Said Mrs. King: “And there is always something left. If you have enough breath to complain, you have enough breath to praise.”

Friends, Paul was in prison…and he had a choice to make. He could have chosen to focus on the negative—on his current circumstances--on all he had lost—but instead he chose to focus on the positive—on “what was left.” In a time of suffering—Paul chose to embrace gratitude and to express joy.

The Rev. Douglas Oldenburg, a former moderator of our PCUSA denomination, once wrote:

“Being in prison, Paul had every reason to be depressed, but instead he wrote to the church at Philippi: ‘Rejoice in the Lord always.’

“Paul had every reason to complain and plead with God about his dire circumstances, but instead he wrote:

‘With thanksgiving let your requests be known to God.’

“Paul had every reason to give up, but instead he wrote:

‘I press on…I can do all things through him who strengthens me.’”

Oldenburg concludes:

“We are not free to determine what happens to us, but we are relatively free to choose how we will respond to whatever happens.”

Or as someone has said:

‘We cannot revoke what has happened at the level of event, but we can rework it at the level of significance, and that choice—how we respond to whatever happens—makes all the difference in the world.’”

Friends, the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper has within it the power to help us discard our negative thoughts for positive ones.

I too, like you, have negative thoughts at times—the state of our nation’s politics and religion can cause me to feel at times just short of despair—not to mention angry.

When I was flying from Spokane to Oakland Friday night and looked over to see a man across the aisle watching a show on his laptop computer--a political journalist I have no respect for-- let’s just say a few negative thoughts flowed through me.

But, friends, I have never in my 59 years had a negative thought

at the moment that I received the bread and the cup that Christ has prepared for me.

Why is that?

Well, the Apostle Paul believes that in that moment of communion we take on the mind of Christ.

And that by God’s grace, through a life of faith, the mind of Christ can eventually become that which guides all our thoughts—our actions—our choices.

What did Jesus do when he saw something or someone who angered him?

One time he prayed:

“Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.”

Paul, to the Philippians in words I believe God means also for us, once wrote:

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

Friends, when we accept that gift of grace—we become a Messiah in disguise—one in whom others see and experience Christ’s kindness, forgiveness, love, hope, and strength.

In closing, several years ago, the world lost a special little boy to cancer named Mattie Stepanek. Mattie died when he was just 14 years old.

Mattie loved to write poetry and his words have touched many hearts and opened many people’s eyes. Through the years I have shared his poems in my sermons.

At the age of 11, three years before his death, he wrote a poem called: “For Our World.”

I thought it was perfect for World Communion Sunday. The poem was Mattie’s response to the rising anger he saw sweeping our nation after 911 and his fear that violence and hate would take over humanity, forever.

I believe Mattie’s poem revealed to us that he was a “Messiah in disguise.”

And I think his poem reflects the spirit of Paul’s great letter to the Philippians—for it too asks us to rise to our better natures as we respond to the great crises in our lives, in the world.

With words which remain prophetic for our nation and world today,

Mattie writes:

“We need to stop. Just stop.

Stop for a moment.

Before anybody Says or does anything That may hurt anyone else.

We need to be silent. Just silent. Silent for a moment.

Before we forever lose The blessing of songs That grow in our hearts.

We need to notice. Just notice. Notice for a moment.

Before the future slips away into ashes and dust of humility.

Stop, be silent, and notice.

In so many ways, we are the same.

Our differences are unique treasures.

We have, we are, a mosaic of gifts To nurture, to offer, to accept.

We need to be.

Just be.

Be for a moment.

Kind and gentle,

innocent and trusting, Like children and lambs,

Never judging or vengeful

Like the judging and vengeful.”

Mattie concludes:

“And now, let us pray, Differently, yet together,

Before there is no earth, no life, No chance for peace.”

Friends, Mattie Stepanek’s spirit lives on in all those people who today seek to live lives which are “kind and gentle, innocent and trusting…never judging or vengeful…”

and thus giving to the world new hope as Messiahs in disguise.

Why not you? Or you? Or you?



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